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Win or bust for Berhalter: USMNT coach's job on the line in must-win World Cup showdown with Iran

5:33 PM IST 29/11/22
Gregg Berhalter USMNT 2022 World Cup HIC 16:9
Rightly or wrongly, the American coach will likely be sacked if his team fails to beat Iran and secure a spot in the last 16 of Qatar 2022.

Ninety minutes. That's it.

Four years of work, multiple trophies, a few moral victories along the way – none of that matters. Gregg Berhalter's tenure in charge of the U.S. men's national team comes down to one game against Iran at Al Thumama Stadium in Qatar.

As pointed out at his pregame press conference, it's a wildly unfair metric to judge an era.

World Cups are an imperfect examination of a national team program, just a look at the tip of an iceberg rather than the roots that run deep. So much can go right, or wrong, in 90 minutes. The best team doesn't always win.

But the USMNT will have to win on Tuesday night to make all of this seem worth it. Victory is the only thing that will get them through to the Round of 16. Anything less will see this run deemed a failure.

"That's our business, our job," Berhalter told reporters on Monday. "We said that this team is going to be judged on what we do at the World Cup, so that's fine. We'll deal with it.

"We're focused on winning. It'll be a good game and we'll keep going in this tournament."

In some ways, the USMNT has been building to this moment since October 10, 2017, the night in Trinidad & Tobago that set the national team program on fire.

Or perhaps December 2, 2018, the day Berhalter was hired to steady the ship and lead a talented, young team toward the prime of their careers.

They aren't in that prime, at least not yet, but there's no denying the talent in this USMNT. They have sufficient quality to escape the group stage, and Berhalter's future may very well depend on them doing so.

National team jobs are generally assessed in four-year cycles, and most coaches never see a second one.

There is an expectation that comes with American soccer, rightly or wrongly, and making the last 16 is a bare minimum.

It isn't too much to ask for a team that has players at Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan, Juventus and plenty of other big clubs. This side should be advancing.

Of course, while a World Cup is often seen as the end of an era, for the U.S. at least, Qatar 2022 is seen as a midpoint.

The 2026 tournament is really the one where the team is meant to shine, where players like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Gio Reyna are supposed to showcase themselves on home soil as established superstars.

They'll likely all be there, too, but will Berhalter?

The outcome of the Iran game will be crucial in that regard. To keep the favor of the American public, Berhalter will have to prove he's able to set this team up to win.

He's long had his detractors, of course. There have been cries of nepotism since his hiring, with his brother Jay Berhalter an executive at U.S. Soccer at the time.

His tactics and view of the game have also come under fire, with some saying they don't necessarily fit the national team program.

Most recently, there has been talk of a "rift" with Gio Reyna stemming from comments made by Eric Wynalda stating that Berhalter asked the winger to lie about his injury status.

"That's just not who I am," Berhalter said of that accusation, which Wynalda subsequently walked back on. "That's not what I represent. If you have to take Eric's word and my word or whatever, feel free, but I know what happened.

"That's not what I represent and like every other person Gio is a member of this team that we care deeply for, and we know we can help the team.

"It's a matter of when he can help us and how we can help us."

To his credit, Berhalter has generally got things right in Qatar, even if the results haven't gone the USMNT's way.

After making a big call to start Tim Weah over Reyna or Brenden Aaronson against Wales, the Lille star responded with a goal, the team's first and only finish of the tournament so far.

The U.S. bossed the game against Wales, only drawing on a late Gareth Bale penalty following a clumsy Walker Zimmerman tackle.

And then came the England, a match that, on the balance of play, should have been another USMNT win. Berhalter shockingly switched formations to a 4-4-2 that allowed the U.S. to harass England and create several solid chances.

Two moral victories, zero actual victories, making this Iran game, essentially, a knockout game for the U.S.

"This is certainly one of the moments, right? So was the Wales game and so was the England game and now Iran," Berhalter said.

"Hopefully we keep going but for us, it's just focus. We're not looking backwards. There's no talking about the performance against Wales or England now. It's really focus on Iran and how we can be successful against them.

"What I see from the group is this tremendous amount of concentration. There's no real distractions and I know there's a lot going on here, but the group is focused on how we get a win.

"It's been a pleasure working with this group for the last four years. There's been a lot of growth. Tomorrow's a great challenge and we're really excited to see how we respond to that."

While Berhalter's job may be on the line, this isn't also a referendum on him, but U.S. Soccer as a whole.

Youth development has been overhauled during the past four years, coaching has been inspected, steps have been taken to help the men's game grow.

However, the game grows by advancing in major international tournaments and failing to reach the knockout stage would clearly be a backward step.

The USMNT's players know what's at stake. A spot in the last 16, yes, but also a bit of their legacy.

Some will get another chance at a World Cup, some won't, but all will have a part of their careers defined by what happens in Qatar.

Success or failure, win or loss, knockout round or a long trip home. All will be decided in 90 minutes. It will be fiercely-contested, emotional, political, and passionate. It is not just another game of soccer, no matter how much Berhalter and the USMNT have to act like it is.

So much is on the line. Will the U.S. rise to the challenge?

"We have to get out of our group by any means," captain Tyler Adams said, "and we can now achieve that goal with a win [against Iran].

"It's good going into a game and knowing there's only one way to do it. You just have to go after it."